Contemporary silver’s star is shining, with a clutch of exhibitions across Britain focusing on the precious metal. However, silver itself is becoming delightfully dull — giving off more of a subtle, sumptuous gleam than a full-on shine.
The shows include Silver Speaks: Idea to Object at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, and Confluence/Konfluenz, showcasing the work of eminent London maker Simone ten Hompel at the Ruthin Craft Centre in North Wales, while Shade is at the Holburne Museum in Bath. And now comes the two-week annual Goldsmiths’ Fair at the Goldsmiths’ Hall in the City, where silversmiths from around Britain show and sell their work.
This year several themes are emerging. The most unexpected is the idea that silver doesn’t have to shine to be beautiful. In recent years silversmiths have experimented with changing the surface of the metal, so that it is not glossy and reflective but softly and gently matt. This is good news for buyers, as a disadvantage of shiny silver is that it has to be cleaned regularly. Many of today’s silversmiths are playing with already darkened surfaces, so their work requires only a gentle wipe.
MYSTERIOUS BLACKENED SILVER
In a special Goldsmiths’ Fair display this year, curator Brian Kennedy has picked the theme of The Dark Side, selecting makers working with different ways of blackening silver, including through oxidisation, patination, enamelling and black gilding.
This may seem perverse, but Kennedy explains: “Years ago in Chicago I came across a pair of Georgian candelabra. Instead of the usually gleaming silver I was confronted by two inky black oxidised pieces, mysterious and slightly sinister and oh-so contemporary. A love affair with blackened silver had begun.”
All the pieces in his selection are for sale and all have a slightly disconcerting yet very attractive quality. Adi Toch’s Pair of Pouring Vessels — wine pourers that don’t spill a drop on the table — are very anthropomorphic.
“They are like a pair of little fat black ducks waddling across the table,” says Kennedy. Toch explains: “The finish of the pieces suggests a different approach to silver with oxidised and hand-scribed surfaces.”
Juliette Bigley’s Containers in Steel and Sterling Silver are like an architect’s model of a small village, but her five tall, patinated bronzy-black vessels, matched with a single silver one, form the real showstopper.
Angela Cork’s Tall Blown Vase is a seductive soft black tower, while Urchin, Karina Gill’s etched and oxidised silver bowl, is formed of segments folding into each other.
Hazel Thorn takes this fragmented approach further, in a vessel that seems to be exploding. “My work is influenced by my childhood in the Highlands of Scotland. I spent a lot of time in those wild landscapes.” This is reflected in her work made of constructed sheets of metal that combine base and precious metals. She applies a chemical patination to the whole object, which affects the mixed metals in various ways, producing contrasting colours that highlight the structure of the sheet.
Rebecca de Quin’s patinated box combines two themes in one — blackened silver and a delight in box-making. Box Set, a pair of dark boxes, suggests half-opened packaging boxes or cartons, with a precious metal form inside. The decorative lines refer to string or tape.
BOXES: A SILVERWARE MUST-MAKE
Boxes seem to be the must-make item of silverware. They have a function but they also look decorative. Despite their size, they make a significant canvas for silversmiths to show their design and craft skills.
This year’s stars include Nan Nan Liu’s Shell Silver Boxes, made up of fine layers of silver wire soldered together into shell-shaped boxes, one banded with gold. Liu’s work is inspired by nature, particularly rippling water.
The ripple theme is picked up by Angela Cork in her Ripple Box, where the undulating silver lid echoes ripples in the sand. Tamar de Vries Winter’s Boxes for Safekeeping couldn’t be more different. Their austere, blackened disc forms open to reveal enamelled photographic images inside, while Kathryn Hinton’s Faceted Box displays a faceted geometry.
Newcomer Patrick Davison’s detailed and delicate boxes are comprised of interlocking hexagon forms made of different mixed-metal processes.
Goldsmiths’ Fair is at Goldsmiths’ Hall, Foster Lane, EC2. Week one runs until Sunday October 2. Week two runs from Tuesday October 4 until Sunday October 9. Open 11am to 6pm (4pm Sunday); closed Monday October 3. Both weeks with catalogue, admission £17. One week with catalogue, £12.